|Who finds Bill Gates’ creativity sexy?
By guest blogger Sam McNerney
Ever since the Sirens seduced sailors with their music, Sophocles entertained ancient Athens, and our Paleolithic ancestors decorated cave walls in Lascaux, individuals have been drawn to acts of creativity. Today, the allure of creativity is all the more apparent. After Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1991, we’ve witnessed a proliferation of creative expression on YouTube channels, blogs, and even Twitter.
Given the undeniable link between human nature and creativity, it’s no surprise that psychologists study why creativity exists. Geoffrey Miller has argued that it evolved as a result of sexual selection. In this view, creative expressions are like a peacock’s tail, a not-so-subtle advertisement to potential mates. Others add that creativity evolved to solve problems. Our species expanded beyond the Savannah not by multiplying but innovating.
So what counts as an “act of creativity”? Are all creative behaviours equally sexy? Is everyone attracted to the same creative behaviours?
A group of creativity researchers led by Scott Barry Kaufman addressed these questions in a paper just published in The Journal of Creative Behavior. They began by drawing on the research of Gregory Feist, who differentiates three forms of creativity: ornamental/aesthetic (art, music), applied/technological (science, engineering) and everyday/domestic creativity (interior decorating, making a new recipe).
The participants were an “ethnically diverse” sample of 815 individuals—119 males and 696 females. For the first part of the experiment, they completed a 43-item checklist in which they ranked creative acts such as “painting a picture,” “writing short stories,” and “making websites” in terms of sexual attraction. Then they took a shortened version of the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Test and the Word Knowledge Test to measure general cognitive ability. Finally, they completed a personality test and a questionnaire about their own creative achievements.
The purpose of the tests and questionnaires was to find correlations between intelligence, personality, and creative achievements and the creative acts each participant preferred. Do certain types of people find certain forms of creativity sexier than others? Or is one form of creativity universally attractive?
The first finding confirmed previous research—people generally prefer creative acts in the ornamental/aesthetic domain. According to the participants, some of the sexiest creative behaviours are activities like writing music, taking photographs, writing poetry, and performing in a band. Kaufman, on his blog “Beautiful Minds,” clarified that artistic forms of creativity evoke the strongest emotions because they “were shaped primarily by sexual selection pressures.” (He quotes Daniel Nettle: “You remember Beethoven and Brahms, but can you name a single innovator in the field of sewer construction and sewage treatment?”)
But that’s not the whole story. Participants who made creative achievements in technology and scored high on intellectual curiosity—this group ranked things like “making websites” and “writing an original computer program” higher than average—had a bias for the applied/technology domain. Science nerds were attracted to science nerds.
On the other hand, the best predictor for a preference toward the ornamental/aesthetic domain was not creative achievement within the domain, but openness to new experiences, one of the big five personality traits. Among the male participants, creative achievements in the everyday/domestic domain also predicted a preference for ornamental/aesthetic creativity. For the men, the researchers also found a negatively correlation between a preference for applied/technology creativity and general cognitive ability.
Overall, the paper supports the theory that sexual selection molded our creative instincts to perform music, writing stories and poetry, and create visual art – creative acts within the ornamental/aesthetic domain that indicate desirable traits such as mental fitness and displays of openness to experience that, as Kaufman puts it in Mating Intelligence Unleashed, “are ‘more in-your-face’ than applied/technology forms of creativity … “.
The paper also provides a more nuanced perspective. If we want to understand why creativity is sexy, we must take into account individual differences. What we like and what we’ve accomplished shape the creative behaviours we’re drawn toward.
Kaufman, S., Kozbelt, A., Silvia, P., Kaufman, J., Ramesh, S., & Feist, G. (2014). Who Finds Bill Gates Sexy? Creative Mate Preferences as a Function of Cognitive Ability, Personality, and Creative Achievement The Journal of Creative Behavior DOI: 10.1002/jocb.78
Post written by Sam McNerney (@sammcnerney) for the BPS Research Digest. McNerney is a US writer with a focus on cognitive psychology, philosophy and business. He’s written for Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Fortune, Fast Company, TechCrunch and BBC Focus and maintained a blog on BigThink.com called Moments of Genius. He currently blogs at his website: sammcnerney.com.